The melodrama that is Haiti opened a new chapter Sunday as exiled former dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprising visit back to the homeland he left almost 25 years ago. Duvalier’s bold move was met with a mix of shock and awe as Haitians across the world try to understand the motive behind his return.
Duvalier’s move was audacious as it was bold. On Sunday, he was greeted at the airport and joined friends for a meal under the gaze of stunned journalists and admirers. He ate slowly and appeared to have difficulty turning his head. He didn’t make any public statements.
The arrival of Duvalier raised several nagging questions. Why didn’t French authorities alert the Haitian government? How come the Haitian government didn’t have an inkling of the journey from Paris to Port-au-Prince? Does Duvalier return mean that others like Jean Bertrand Aristide, General Raoul Cedras, Colonel Michel Francois, actors in the coup dramas of 1991 can now return to the troubled Caribbean nation?
Those are no small questions and ones that lame duck President Rene Preval is probably dealing with along with his advisors. So far, Preval has said nothing of Duvalier’s feet being on Haitian soil. Meanwhile, international human rights organizations are urging the Haitian government to arrest Duvalier on various human rights violations that allegedly occurred during his regime.
The Duvaliers’ 29-year dictatorship ushered one of the darkest periods in a country that has seen many dark moments during its 207 year as a republic. The Duvalier regime began in 1957 when Jean Claude’s father Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected president and quickly consolidated power by eliminating institutions like the Army that he saw as a threat to his rule. He either killed or exiled his political enemies, real or imagined. The reign of terror continued after Francois died in 1971. A few months before his death, Francois introduced his portly 19-year-old only son as his successor and proclaimed him president for life. Life for Jean Claude as it turned out ended on February 7, 1986 after he was deposed following popular uprisings.
Jean Claude was whisked into exile along with his son and fashionable wife, Michelle Bennett Duvalier. The couple separated and Jean Claude has lived mostly in obscurity in France until his return on Sunday to Haiti. A deeply polarizing figure, his return has created quite a stir in the Haitian community.
“Welcome back Mr. President,” wrote one supporter on Duvalier’s Facebook page. “This day was long overdue, you were suppose to be gone for only 20 years. By the way, I apologize for the way you find Haiti, thanks to Aristide, Preval and all the Lavalas that have been running the country to the ground since you left.”
Another post read: “We all should face Justice. In the honor of our ancestors who shed their blood to create this great nation…We’re all culpable in the plight of this great Pearl of the Antilles…It’s no wonder we rejoice when our leaders get kicked out of power. We blame them for our own lack of courage, our own lack of unity, our own lack fraternity. We allow them to stand alone in the face of those who are determined to keep us enslave. WE ARE A NATION OF COWARDS.”
For me the Duvalier regime was a source of enigma. I remember Francois broke my aunt Christine’s tooth when he threw a bunch of coins at her while we were standing in our courtyard in Ruelle Alerte. From time to time, Francois would tour the city and throw money at pretty women. People would scramble for the loose change. It was a similar practice I would observe years later when I was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo.
When Francois presented his son to the nation, he told the Haitian people that he had led the political revolution and that his son would continue the economic revolution. It is true that Jean Claude committed less atrocities. But he didn’t have to because his father made sure that he had zombified the nation by the time Jean Claude became president. Everyone knew their place and knew that sharing your opinions could be fatal. Journalists were exiled and intellectuals were either killed or co-opted. Haiti had become a nation of sheep.
I left Haiti shortly after Jean Claude became president. I came to live with my mother in New York and we moved to New Jersey as her job decamped for the Garden State. Again, my recollections of the Duvalier regime is one of naïve youth, too young to understand the totality and brutality of what was going on around me. The afro was the hairstyle choice of the youth in Haiti, an American import that was the rave in black outlawed it. He was so serious that he unleashed his bogeymen, the Tonton Macoutes armed with pistols and a pair of scissors to stop afro wearing young men and summarily chop their hair.
So today as Duvalier’s return to Haiti is being discussed so passionately, most of what has become of Haiti can trace their roots back to the Duvaliers, pere and fils. Port-au-Prince, once an elegant if tiny metropolis, has turned into one of the worst slums in the world. Francois Duvalier started the avalanche when he used to bus in thousands of peasants from the countryside to line up the streets and applaud visiting foreign dignitaries and show his popularity. Many of these peasants loved the bright lights of the big city and stared Cite Soleil. A city designed for 300,000 people is now home to three million inhabitants, the earthquake death toll notwithstanding.
Today if leadership qualities are lacking in Haiti, it is because under that regime taking initiative if often a deadly endeavor, if not for the actor, but for his or her extended family members. The brain drain that has ruined Haiti was a Duvalier legacy, one whose destructive impact will last more than a generation.
To be sure, Duvalier has many supporters in the country as Alexis wrote on Facebook. There are many who see his reign of terror as a time when Haiti was moving economically and that Haitians were viewed rather positively outside of Haiti. It was also a time when crime was a curiosity and people feared a Vodou priest more than a gun-wielding marauder. And so over the last 20 years there have been some pro-Duvalier protests and people who wax nostalgically about the Duvalier regime, highlighting the failure of his successors. But that argument rings hollow when you see that these people inherited a bad hand and were not ready to lead a country. The chaos that followed in Haiti is a direct result of the Duvalier years.
While many people see Duvalier’s return as yet another catastrophe befallen upon Haiti, another way to look at it is that it may be the seminal event that the country needed to move forward. Haiti has been stuck since then, partly because the people have never exorcised the demons that were the Duvaliers. Jean Claude left the country not having been held accountable for anything and his absence has been jarring to Haitians. If he is forced to face justice, Haitians can begin the arduous task of rebuilding their nation. The hard work has only begun.